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Parnassa Issues: Do You Have a Plan?
by Stuart Hoffman

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Parnassa Issues: Do You Have a Plan?

by Stuart Hoffman

If you are a yeshiva bachur or a seminary graduate, have you thought about what you will eventually do for a parnassa? If you are a parent, have you discussed planning for a parnassa with your teens? If not, you should be aware that a new reality exists in the job market of 2010 and beyond.

Unfortunately, this new reality does not favor the unskilled, semi-skilled, or even the experienced and skilled young men and women in our community seeking employment after years of learning in Israeli or American yeshivas/kollelim or seminaries. Although many boys and girls succeed in earning bachelors degrees without ever having to enter a regular university campus, these degrees are, in many cases, no longer adequate, leaving the road to a good, well-paying job as elusive as ever. The competition in the job market is fierce. Our youth are competing with many eager and talented young people, who have job skills and legitimate degrees from major universities. It is unlikely that a selecting official, even a frum one, will choose a young person with only a yeshiva or seminary “degree” over an equally bright young person with real job skills and a quality education from a good university.

As a member of the human resources staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, I am in a position to share with you a concrete example the type of competition you might be facing. Today, when a mid-salary range, $40,000 to $50,000 analyst position in a federal government agency is announced to the public through the Federal government’s internet page, an average of 200 to 300 qualified applicants can be expected to apply! So, even if the yeshiva/seminary applicant is included on the minimally-qualified list, what is the likelihood of him or her being included on the best-qualified list? It is not likely. For example, even the bright math person, who has passed a few actuarial examinations but lacks any college level math courses, will find him/herself at a disadvantage in government and many private sector firms as compared to applicants who passed a few actuarial tests and also completed college level math courses.

We have to realize that earning a yeshiva degree in Talmud or Jewish education – or a seminary-related degree from an unknown college with a major in humanities or general studies – is of little value in today’s secular high tech job market.

In short, the era of the “yeshivishe shortcut” is over!

Planning Ahead

So, if the hishtadlus(preparations) of the past – although created for very good reasons – will not cut it in the future, what is a yeshiva student and seminary girl to do? Here are some practical ideas that parents and their children can discuss when the question of a future parnassa and career are front and center.

The first step is for parents and children to read, together, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz’s article, “The Plan ‘A’” at Rabbi Horowitz says it better than anything I can say. Yes, everyone, even kollel students, needs a plan. The plan should be discussed and developed over the teenage years – long before one is ready to actually implement it. Rabbi Horowitz wrote his article a number of years ago during the economic good times; now, during hard times, his message is even more powerful.

New Strategies

Let me give you a concrete example of a career path that is commonly taken but that could be better: Many yeshiva students who want to go into accounting take the required college courses at a community college. With these credits and their yeshiva degree, they qualify to take the Certified Public Accounting (CPA) tests. Yes, this will work for the CPA or a job in public accounting, but it excludes two other fields within the accounting job market: private corporate accounting and government accounting. Both of those fields require a degree in accounting or a degree in business with a major in accounting.

A better strategy is to apply to and be accepted by a four-year university with an accounting major. (A word of caution: Before embarking on this option, you should check in advance whether the degree-granting university accepts your transfer credits.) Then, simply transfer the yeshiva and community college credits to the university and take the remaining five to seven courses to complete an undergraduate degree in accounting or business with an accounting major. With this degree, you can apply for public, private, and government accounting positions!

This shortcut works, because it leads to a legitimate, marketable degree.

Accumulating Credits

Many of our girls high schools offer community college courses during the senior year. Our girls need to take advantage of these courses. They are an easy and painless way to earn 12 to15 college credits in basic subjects like English, accounting, sociology, psychology, American government, and college mathematics – without having to leave the friendly confines of the school campus. In fact, if you also take courses at a local community college the summer before your senior year and the summer after it, you can amass almost 30 credits – one full year of college! – before even beginning your post-high school education. It should be easy to attend these general summer courses with a few friends, mitigating the sudden exposure to the not-so-friendly college environment.

Graduate School

Another option – one that many of our young people have already taken – is to use the yeshiva/seminary bachelor’s degree as a steppingstone to a graduate degree from a recognized university, one where you must compete to gain entry. This is a shortcut that still works, because it leads to a legitimate, marketable degree.

Yes, you will need to be serious about studying for the Graduate Record Examination, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), or the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The yeshiva degree in Talmud coupled with a high score on the LSAT is a good way to gain admission to a recognized law school. However, the average yeshiva student will need to work hard preparing for the test: by reading the LSAT preparation books, taking a few computer-based practice tests, and working on improving his math and vocabulary skills months in advance of the actual LSAT.

One caveat: In some fields, getting into a good graduate school is getting harder. The same bad economy that is causing increased competition for jobs has resulted in increased applicants to graduate schools. Graduate programs are thus beginning to favor the best-qualified students, those who received their bachelor’s degrees from regular universities.

Some students choose to do an online master’s degree rather than attend a recognized graduate school. This may result in significant disappointment and discouragement. Such “make-believe” graduate degrees from an unknown “college” in “South Dakota” or other online program often fail to result in any progress towards a legitimate job offer. Beware: Any for-profit “college program” must be reviewed carefully, including the fine print.

Alternative Fields

We should admit that some of our boys are just not cut out for a full-day learning program. What about a half-day of learning coupled with a vocational or college program? This would permit the boys who can absorb a morning or an afternoon of learning to blend their part-time learning with a part-time college program, to the benefit of both.

Even boys who can handle a full-day learning program may eventually find themselves in a technical degree program like pre-medicine, pre-dental, nursing, or engineering that may not lend itself to evening-only classes. So a half-day learning, half-day school program addresses these students’ needs as well.

Do not forget the service industry. A college degree is not for everyone – nor should it be. Even in these poor economic times, we still need plumbers, electricians, and an assortment of construction workers. If you have the aptitude for fields in the service industry, a host of options for a very respectable parnassa can be explored.

As an example, retirements and general attrition are causing BG&E to recruit entry level line workers whom they train. They even claimed to be shomer Shabbos-friendly. After factoring in the almost expected overtime from storms and other emergencies, one can earn between $75,000 and $80,000 as a starting salary!

If you are interested in such work, where do you begin? There is no better way to see if it is for you than by using your summer breaks to work as a helper for a master in the field. Coupled with a few low-cost practical courses from a community college, this can be the beginning of a career option.

If you browse through a few local community college catalogues, you will see many occupations that you may have never considered or even known about: like automotive repair, medical lab technician, surgical technologist, radiographer, web design, computer repair, medical billing or coding, HVAC (heating and refrigeration), and many more. There are even apprenticeship programs in carpentry, electricity, and plumbing. Most of these fields require two years or less of training.

Sales and retail positions are available for those who are capable of selling. Frankly, I am not, and I have hard time relating to these positions. But if you have the innate ability to “sell,” and you are flexible, you will find positions. These positions require you to be a self-starter, have a good ability to meet and greet all types of people, and have excellent follow-up skills. Often you must be willing to travel. How do you prepare for such positions? Local community college courses in public speaking, economics, marketing, accounting, and business management can help.

Work Experience and other Essentials

If you are a frum young person starting out today, you are often coming straight from yeshiva or college. You will confront another new reality: The people you are competing against for the scarce openings have a number of years of work experience, often directly related to the specific opening under consideration! How can you overcome that disadvantage?

First, take advantage of the precious summer months. Use that time to work or volunteer at positions that can give you some credible experience, meaningful resume material, and even a little extra money.

Second, many college programs today require their students to complete a number of short-term internships. These are excellent opportunities to gain valuable work experience, make contacts for the future, and experience the work environment first hand.

Of course, it goes without saying that basic computer literacy is mandatory for almost every field, even in the service industry. Everyone needs to know how to use the Microsoft Office Suite of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook Email. Employers expect these basic computer competencies and do not want to hear about training employees in their use. Beginner courses in these software programs are available at city or county adult education centers, public libraries, course-specific online tutors, or simple “Dummy” books, which walk one through the basics of each program. Become computer literate!

A Word about Certificate Programs

In the last few years, a number of colleges and universities have established certificate programs in business management, health compliance, finance, and marketing. Keep in mind that the intended audiences for these programs are currently-employed people who work for corporations that pay the often exorbitant tuitions, which can range from $10,000 to $13,000. These certificate programs are loosely associated with a college/university but are clearly for-profit operations designed to add money to the college/university budget.

Are such college certificate programs of any value for the not-as-yet employed kollel or seminary student, or even a person with limited or no technical skills? Is completing a certificate in a subject area the same as a degree in that subject area? Of course it is not the same! Certification in accounting or auditing is not an accounting degree or a CPA. A certificate from a college/university in management is not an MBA. Certificate programs run by a for-profit organization, even under some association with a recognized college/university, is not a substitute for a professional degree.

But will the certificate program result in an entry level job in that field? Even if it does, ask yourself whether spending $10,000 to $13,000 for a $40,000 to $50,000 a year job a good return on your investment? It may or may not be a worthwhile investment.

We need to be realistic about these so-called “college certificate” programs. They are marketed by for-profit organizations motivated by one idea and one idea only – making profits for themselves! They may cloak themselves in college/university garb, but before signing up, find out if they will give you a truly certified degree that qualifies you for state or professional certification.

Fitting In

Okay, you obtained the proper educational credentials. What else do you need to know to get that job? One is the “fitting in” with the group issue. Many employers look to see if an applicant will fit into the work culture, be part of the team, and blend into the company vision. For a ben or bas Torah, that can often present a challenge. We do not eat their food, frequent their lunchtime restaurants, or dress in the latest style if it is not appropriate. What should we do?

It is not my intent to pasken for anyone – and if this issue does arise, one should consult his or her rav or posek for guidance – but consider the following: Should we be so insulated from the work society and culture that we are perceived as odd and not fitting into the team? Can we can be part of the work team without sacrificing our values by using a little common sense and knowing where to draw the lines?

We do need to make a clear distinction and maintain a careful balancing act between job-related socialization and off-hours socialization. Yes, we need to be part of the work team during regular work hours and days. We cannot be viewed as odd or as non-team players in the work group. At the same time, we have to make sure we do not cross over the line and join their non-work social activities. While it may be okay to attend the company picnic or join them for lunch – if we bring our own food or only have a soft drink – joining their after-work “happy hour” is most certainly inappropriate.

Yes, we are different. We should dress differently, talk differently, and act differently. But that should not prevent us from being positive contributors to the work team, a source of team support that employers can count on to be reliable members of the company. We must be strong and confident that we can interact with society yet still remain bnei Torah.

Correcting Our Perceptions

Many yeshiva/seminary students today grow up in very insulated environments. They have had very few, if any, interactions with middle- and upper-class non-Jews or with non-frum Jews in the outside world, and their perspective may be limited to service-oriented people who do not have a high level of education. Our students must remember that in the general world, people possess the same diversity of levels of intelligence and education as is found in our circles. In the professional work environment, these middle-and upper-class people will present as totally professional and proper. They share many of our family-oriented and Western society perspectives. They are engaged in community activities, donate time and money to charity projects, and value a good education for their children. While on the job, we need to learn how to be career focused, speak in a professional way, and produce results for the company or agency, just as they do.

Personal Appearance

The professional world is not the same as the academic world. That which is acceptable in the academic world (including the yeshiva world in its own unique ways) is often unacceptable in the professional world. This is especially true when making a first impression at a job interview. It is a shame to ruin a job interview by overlooking simple personal appearance issues. Men should wear a clean shirt, a tie without stains, polished or new looking shoes, and a neat yarmulke. Please leave the hat in the car. You are not going to a bais medrash or shul, and a hat will not help in a job interview situation to show the selecting official that you will fit into the work team, if hired. Ladies should present a “put together” and neat appearance, including a combed and correctly placed sheitel.

More Common Sense

Be on time, or better yet,arrive early. Most prospective employers will not take a positive view of the job candidate who is late for the job interview. It creates a perception in the employer’s mind that you are unreliable, irresponsible, or both.

If you are unfamiliar with the area of town where the job interview will take place, do a dry run to avoid getting lost on the way. Also, check out the parking situation in advance.

Job interviews are not social gatherings. Leave your friends and family members at home. Never bring small children (or even large children) to an interview. Get a reliable babysitter.

The initial job interview is not the time or place to bring up our unique issues, such as Yom Tov absences or early Friday departure times in the winter months. All you will be doing is placing an obstacle before the employer. Other candidates will not have such “needs.” There is a correct time and place for that discussion. It is not at the initial interview. From the employer’s point of view, being a frum candidate is not an asset! Rather, it is a burden that many managers would prefer to avoid – and they can. There are numerous equally qualified applicants ready and willing to take the job without our “special needs.”

In Summary

We need to think and act wisely. Many of our young men who spend their first married years learning in a kollel should not be surprised by sudden parnassa issues and job skills shortcomings when they later seek employment. Our capable and intelligent young men and women need realistic plans for attaining professional and administrative positions based upon real credentials and job skills, not haphazard pieces of paper from some obscure college.

This message is not at all against kollel or seminary. Rather, it is a message against being unprepared and unaware of the new realities when entering the job market upon the eventual departure from kollel/seminary. The economic slowdown and the job market in the coming years are going to be difficult. Their impact in the United States and in Israel are unlikely to end quickly. The key is to have as many job choices and options as possible available for our young men and women.

Change is not coming. Change is already here! Are you ready? Do you have a plan?

Related Articles:

More About “The Plan”

The Job Search

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